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seeing with your heart rather than conventional wisdom, kenny chesney, back where he comes from

Ten minutes before two as New Year's Eve surrenders to 2002, and the Waffle House is jumping. There's a place at the counter, because they take care of the regulars, especially regulars flying solo on this, their most hectic of nights. And sitting at the formica in my party clothes with a Coke and a waffle, there isn't a better place to close out a year of tumult and revelation.

It was a year of realizing you should never be too fast to count anything out. We shouldn't be so quick to know we know… Because sometimes it can all turn upside down before you even know what the hell happened.

Which is how I came to spend my birthday, New Year's Eve, with one Kenny Chesney, a country act I'd've never believed I'd be aligned with under any circumstance. The irony, though, is sometimes our biases can rob us of something really wonderful without our ever realizing it.

Filing under the "pass my muff, hell just froze over…" tab is my most recent client -- the aforementioned emergent country force Kenny Chesney, of the back-to-back two-million sellers, the 11,000 in attendence at Nashville's Gaylord Center for New Year's Eve, the frightening "Sexy Tractors" and "Having You From Hellos."

Kenny Chesney, a mainstream country artist I couldn't have been more certain was a major part of the problem. Kenny Chesney, the kind of broadband hillbilly star who was the cancer that would sell what little was left of Nashville's soul to the superchain radio stations and laugh all the way to the bank.

Kenny Chesney, from Luttrell, Tennessee, who didn't long to be a country singer 'til college -- and who's taken the long road with little respect in the name of a dream and something he probably didn't even dare embrace because he was a little too small, a little too average, a little too much like every other guy from where he comes from.

While the Nashville industry is out looking for brand new mysteries, deeper truths and old standards, Kenny Chesney was holding up a mirror to his audience: real kids and regular people -- folks the 6-1-5 doesn't really even know anymore with their research and their focus groups, but would never take the time to break bread or toss back a couple cold ones with.
Kenny Chesney knows those people. He is them. He knows the fear of asking the popular girl out, the quickening of the pulse when you take the plunge or kiss or fall in love for the first time, the rush of suiting up for Friday night football even when you're the world's slowest starting receiver.

The young man in the cowboy hat knows how it feels, how it thrills, how it can hurt -- and he has no pretensions about who he is. In fact, he likes who he is just fine -- and so do all the other people who look and live just like him. He was able to weave that truth with some frothy hooks and give people a soundtrack to ordinary lives.

And for that, the fans have rewarded him in ways that defy the conventional wisdom down on Music Row. He can now headline. He runs three buses. He has a home behind a gate where the-tour-of-the-stars- homes buses pull up on a regular. But mostly, when he flashes that smile that is pure good and good ole boy, they see themselves celebrated by one of their own.
Standing at the jukebox, figuring to drop the quarter in my pocket into the machine and play "You Had Me From Hello," the song that provided my first Chesney humiliation, a young kid 19 or 20 walked up. "You go to the show?" he asked
"The Kenny Chesney show down at the arena…"
"Oh, yeah," I say, shifting my weight. Looking into this face that's so wide-open, so filled with hope and happiness, aglow in the beam that is New Year's Eve, a bunch of unruly dark hair pushed under a ball cap, shirt tail hanging out and just a bit too much girth to probably get any of the really pretty girls, there was a connection he was trying to make.
"How was it?"
"Real good. You go?"
"No, but my friends did."

There were six kids squeezed into a booth meant for four, with a chair on the end for my new friend. They were all American-looking kids, shining faces, freshly scrubbed, pupils just the tiniest bit dilated from celebrating the end of the year.
"Uhm, did you go backstage?"
What an odd question, I couldn't help thinking.
"Yes, why would you ask?"
"Well, I saw your pass said ALL ACCESS…"

In my exhaustion, I'd forgotten to take my laminate off. And there it was big as Dallas, hanging off my coat. Smiling the wan smile of the busted, I nodded.
"How come you got to go backstage?"

You'd've thought it was Valhalla. But for the people who don't understand that backstage is mostly a drab concrete warren for the functionaries, there is a sense that it's the return of Sodom and Gomorrah. Partypartyparty at a level mere mortals could not comprehend -- a bacchanal of every excess known to man. A veritable flesh buffet of willing groupies, a bevy of babes and famous people wiggling about in demi-clad states ingesting champagne, cocaine and whatever else suits them.

I hate being the pin in the bubble.
"I work with Kenny…"
"You… work with him? You KNOW him?! What do you do…"
It's a question you get, though not normally with quite this degree of enthusiasm.
I explain my function. He yells to his friends, "She KNOWS him."
And then he invites me to come talk to his friends."
"He rocked, man. He just rules…"

So it went for a bit, the big throwdown. A bunch of sparkling-eyed merry young adults who can still throw it all to the wind with complete abandon. They were so classically all the things this country wants to believe it's young people are, it was hard to believe. And they were so excited about their big new year's eve.

"Where were you sitting?" I ask, knowing proximity can be a factor.
"Third tier, man, and there were these old people who were telling us to be quiet."
With that, they all started laughing. They'd come to have a good time, to party, to ring in the new year with their main man -- and no one, gray haired or otherwise, was going to stop them. And rocking the cheap seats isn't an easy thing to do.
It was one of those moments where you don't even think about what to do.
"You guys wanna talk to him?" I ask, reaching for my cell phone.
"Really…" uttered in sextuple tones of wonder."
"Well, let's see if we can find him. He may not have his cell on -- and he may not be home yet, either. He was actually pretty sick yesterday, so he may just have decided to sleep on his bus."
"Hell, yeah, we wanna talk to him."
"Okay then, let's see how we do."
It was New Year's morning. Of course there was no answer anywhere. But that didn't mean we didn't leave a message. I passed my phone over to the one who seemed the most eager, another young guy in ball cap and let him ramble.
His friends all muttered their approval -- and he rapped for a good 60 seconds.

My first call of New Year's Day was my mother seeing how my night was.

My second call was Kenny Chesney, laughing, saying he heard the message, wondered what was going on, heard the phrase "we're at the Waffle House" -- and knew. "Only you," he laughed, "only you would put some fans on the phone in the middle of the night… and let'em leave me a message."

"Because only you, Kenny Chesney, would appreciate something like that."
There was a pause. Then the man Country Weekly called "country's hottest bachelor" laughed. "Yeah, I guess you're right," he conceded.

Kenny Chesney understands how it feels to be looking into the lights. Ten years ago, he had a big New Year's gig -- thrilled to be working on such a major night in Nashville, the city of dreams. He played the Turf, a rough bar on the worst block of what was Music City's seediest strip of low-rent, low-class honky tonks or losers lounges.

He played for four hours that night to a crowd that at it's greatest number was 10.
You'd have to add a few zeros for this year's attendance. Because Kenny Chesney, who came to Nashville as everyboy and knew there was no way he could compete with Alan Jackson's looks or Garth Brooks' charisma or Vince Gill's voice, writing and guitar-slinging.

So Kenny Chesney decided to tell the truth about what he'd lived and what he'd learned. Most of us don't get to lead profound lives -- and many people would rather have a frothy ditty to make them forget the day. Kenny Chesney wasn't above making those people, his people feel good -- which has been the secret of his success.

And if people don't "get" it, well, they don't get that audience, either. As someone who tries to get out there and watch the world going by, staying in touch is hard… but you do the best you can. Even still someone who sings songs about tractors, who makes videos with dancing merbabes, who has never cared about courting the industry can amount to something.
That's where you have to remember to not know. Because there are plenty of artists who will let you down and break your heart, who will be selfish and self-centered and vain and petty, who you come to realize abuse those around them because of their gift -- and that's heartbreaking in its own way.

Then there are the people you write off from the distance, who might actually have something to offer. Yes, many of them are petulant and uncultured. But there are several who'd shock you with their commitment, their dignity, the willingness to lay it down for their people.
And the largest truth may just be this: the people who love Emmylou Harris or Lucinda Williams (people like me) would find another place to go for their emotional recalibrating because we are seekers and introspectives and dreamers. For the people who love Kenny Chesney, they may not have someone else to voice their triumphs, their glories, their tragedies.

Kenny Chesney's world is blue collar basic. It's Firebirds or pick-ups, a couple of six-packs, college football, believing in Saturday night and picking up that certain girl -- or finding that just right boy. For those folks a song like "Fall In Love" is everything they could hope for -- and "Back Where I Come From" is a rallying cry that defines the very core of what has shaped each and everyone of them.

"Back Where I Come From" was never a single -- and it looks all the negative clichés about being backwater right in the face. It embraces them gently, smiles and sets them aside in the name of all the things that come from those places that make each of these kids not give a damn about that other level of cool so many seek.

These people -- like Kenny Chesney -- are living their lives, not worrying about the rest of it. And for me, a girl who was certain she was going to pass on this client, that's a pretty good lesson learned. Indeed, signing Kenny Chesney came down to two truths: he wasn't afraid to do the work and he wasn't concerned about what people thought as long as he was connecting with his fans.

When you look into the faces of those fans, indeed if you'd seen that table of kids at the Waffle House, you'd understand what touching people really means. And once you've seen that, how can it be about anything but getting out there and making it happen in a way that lifts people up. Indeed.

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